Mar 18

I Used The NME

FT8 comments • 980 views

sugarpuffins My NME was rubbish. I wasn’t there for the underground press invation, or for the Titanic sailing, or the Kinderbunker. I missed the post-structuralist years. I never read about Youth Suicide. I was even too late for C86. My NME was go-karting with the Senseless Things and Birdland covers.

Because I read every word of it, my NME was also fantastic. I read, and tried to understand, the Orbit column about dance music. I pushed my way through Jungle Brothers reviews and double-page Tone Loc interviews, and gradually pieced together the bones of an appreciation of hip-hop, at least on paper. I read interviews with old warhorses, never-weres, no-hopers. I turned lines from reviews over in my mind, trying to translate them into the investment – or not – of £5.49 at Our Price. I insisted on spending my holiday pocket money on a Stone Roses cassingle from the Arndale Centre in Manchester, because it was the Arndale Centre in Manchester. I taped and retaped Peel. I told myself I cared about go-karting.

The usual indie story, then. It was a function of boredom, of course, boredom and hunger. It’s very little reflection on the NME, which was enormously important to me and – in any clear-sighted reckoning – largely rushed and terrible. Its virtue was that it was there. It had the chutzpah that comes with needing to fill 60 pages a week – one year Bob Dylan celebrated a landmark birthday, so of course they interviewed Bob. And The Dylans. Sometimes that could still produce a spark – googling the NME in 1989 I let out a gurgle of delight on seeing The Sugarcubes’ cover: THESE PEOPLE EAT PUFFINS!

Melody Maker was better, I’m told. It had better writing, I’m sure. A more refined sensibility, which treated Einar as an artist, not a puffin-munching freak. But every time I bought it back then it seemed to have the fucking Mission in. The music papers weren’t only selling writing, they were selling community, a sense of finding your people, and nothing personal, my people just didn’t include Wayne Hussey. Even if they did include the Wonder Stuff – who says 15-year olds make sense, even to themselves?

As it turned out, the things a reasonable reader might have pointed to in my NME and said “this is good” – a residual respect for black music; an excitement around house; an awareness that pop fitted into a wider culture; a bouncy sense of cheek – were all hangovers of better days, echoes of what the paper had been, not what it was becoming. (Within a few years, Melody Maker really would do all those things better). The community it was selling didn’t really need that stuff – not as much as it needed Mega City Four and The Frank And Walters, at any rate. Make a community too tight and inbreeding happens. Ten years on and some of those new bands had the Innsmouth Look.

You can’t choose when you’re born – culture comes at you and some of it sticks, never mind the quality. Sometimes the things that formed you aren’t worth remembering. But they formed you anyway. What can I say about my NME? When I first read it, I think it did its best, and I loved it.


  1. 1
    hardtogethits on 8 Mar 2018 #

    My relationship with the NME was very uneasy. It gave birth to the charts, and from an early age I was aware of this and grateful to it. See how much I respect the charts – it’s why I read freakytrigger. Thanks, NME.

    Danny Baker tweeted – with greater import and existential profundity – “The NME announces this week’s printed edition will be it’s last. So sad. Without the NME, me and the kids wouldn’t be all together celebrating Wendy’s birthday tonight. No NME. No us. Champagne please, waiter…”

    Yep. No NME, no us – because no “Popular” community. No such St Etienne song. Unthinkable.

    And yet, I didn’t much like the NME. I tried, especially when at the age of 15 I needed a steer on where to spend my limited cash. But it didn’t A my Qs.

    And I understand some on the inside felt the same.

    I was so much a Smash Hits boy, then a Record Mirror boy, then a Record Mirror man.

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    chelovek na lune on 8 Mar 2018 #

    Oddly , I have a feeling that may have been the very first edition i ever bought. I read it regularly from 1989 to 1993, aged 14 to 18. I stopped reading it after, in my first term at university in St Andrews, reading the edition supplied to my hall’s common room, a old Harrovian (a bit of a luvvie who now makes very good drama shows for the BBC) sidled up to me and said somewhat disapprovingly: “You know, at School, we could tell who the losers were, because they read that”. Harsh, but, on balance, not entirely unfair. (I think being at university at a place in which the culture was far more traditional and rural than contemporary and urban – ceilidhs rather than rock music, no nightclubs – helped. And, having been a regular at ULU, and less regular at the Brixton Academy while in the 6th form, then, a couple of trips to gigs in Glasgow and Aberdeen – both at least a couple of hours’ distant from St As aside, my indie days came to an abrupt halt).

    But, ah – during those four years – the things it introduced me to. Above all, to single out one act: the Manic Street Preachers. The “4 REAL” interview and the shock and horror that went with it, the “Culture Slut” cover, too. And also Carter USM. But introduction to a wider range of cultural and political references that had otherwise been quite out of reach, in my somewhat grim East London council estate upbringing.

    I read Record Mirror too until it folded, having originally discovered it, prodigiously, aged 7, in 1982, when it was still a broadsheet. But I returned to it in 1989 until its closure in 1991. In many ways that was my favourite of the music weeklies. And Melody Maker more than occasionally. And Sounds every once in a while, if it had an act I was interested in on the cover.

    But the NME – and everyone seems to say it was already past its best by the late 80s – it did give me something worthwhile, certainly. And yeah – maybe the enduring influence of those days is one of the things that brought me here.

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    Billy Smart on 8 Mar 2018 #

    I would maintain that the NME actuallygot much better under the editorship of Steve Sutherland from about 1993-99 than it had been in the rather beery, baggy Alan Lewis-Danny Kelly period of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when all of the most interesting and imaginative action was going on at Melody Maker (although, as you say, a curious roster of acts popular with MM readers largely ignored by the NME cropped up again and again there – Mish/ Nephs/ Cure/ Sisters/ All About Eve/ Darling Buds).

    Britpop people were on the NME cover far too often at that time, but as the readers wanted to read about them it was an understandable policy that kept the circulation up. But I was looking through my stack of mid-nineties copies recently and what struck me was the depth and range of coverage. Seemingly everybody got a proper interview at that point, and these articles were still almost all worth reading, rather than PR puff pieces. With a large pagecount, and the frequency of weekly publication, there was an authoritative quality to the NME of that period that I’ve never quite found in any music publication (or site) since.

    (Nice to be back here, by the way!)

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    23 Daves on 9 Mar 2018 #

    I was summoned to my parent’s house not long ago to have a clear out of my stack of old copies of the NME in their garage – “There’s been a roof leak, and they’ve gone all mouldy” (I still half-suspect that this was bollocks and my Mum probably just got fed up and fired the garden hose at them, but they’d been at their house for a whole decade awaiting a collection that never came and was obviously never going to come, so I can see the temptation).

    They were mostly intact, if a bit powdery and whiffy, but on flicking through them one last time and taking occasional cuttings, I was struck by how unappealing I now found their “you’re either with or us or against us” adversarial tone. Obviously as a teenager and post-adolescent this tapped into something I wanted, and I probably needed to feel that a big battle was being fought with Miles Hunt on one side and Rick Astley on the other, and that I was one of the good and true – but it felt embarrassing to read back and remember that I actually took some of this stuff seriously once. Then again, tribal musical rivalries/ warfare was a proper thing in those days, and it’s not something I especially miss.

    I wouldn’t say it opened up a new world to me, because I was a Record Mirror reader before that went under, and that covered many of the same bands (though had a peculiar aversion to The Stone Roses) while also taking on board Dance music and pop. Once that was gone, though, I had a choice between jumping to the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, or Music Week who Record Mirror inexplicably folded into, and the NME seemed like the most obvious choice. It had some of the air of silliness of RM and was the next best match, as well as having some musical diversity about its contents.

    I rated some of their interviews with the more intelligent or controversial stars like Mark E Smith, Nick Cave, Cathal Coughlan and Morrissey highly, as they managed to bring out the most interesting sides to them in a way that other journalists sometimes struggled to achieve. I’m also glad it existed for the KLF, whose NME interviews were frequently the most chaotic and fascinating. I don’t know if any other music magazine managed to quite enter Drummond and Cauty’s world in the same way, allowing the pair to lead them on while asking just the right amount of questions.

    While I do think that Melody Maker had some of the best music writers, I think people tend to forget that they had some terrible hacks on their pages as well who ended up doing deeply unrevealing interviews and gig reviews, and the NME had better contributors on average. You’d very rarely put down an NME and remember the fact that a third-rate fanzine writer had been allowed access to a cult indie band without a sub-editor coming within an inch of their final copy, whereas I seemed to get that feeling with MM every week.

  5. 5
    Matt DC on 9 Mar 2018 #

    Probably the least controversial or challopy (but also true) thing that hasn’t really been said so far about the decline of the NME – the beginning of the end was when people stopped needing it to find out when and where the gigs were taking place. Pretty sure those solid blocks of texts sold more copies than all the thinkpieces and slatings and adversarial interviews put together.

  6. 6

    Yes, the initial 1973 turnaround for the NME — from failing 60s pop trade paper to Scribbled Notes from (What Remained of) the Counterculture — was hugely boosted by the fact that, besides inviting a bunch of scruffs from the underground press to write knowledgeably about ROCK — it literally* invented the GIG GUIDE. No weekly music paper had had anything like this previously.

    *(re “literally”: actually I guess it probably adapted the notion from the true listings pioneer, Time Out: but Time Out only serviced London, while NME serviced the entire country, and that was an achievement and a breakthrough)

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    Tom on 9 Mar 2018 #

    ISTR even when I was reading it there was some interview or other with an editor where they admitted “most people buy it for the gig guide” (the Melody Maker equivalent was the classified ads for gear, I guess)

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    Mark M on 9 Mar 2018 #

    My era of peak NME reading was, I guess, ’85-’89, so from 15 to 19. I know I read it after that, on and off up until the mid-’90s, but along the way it slipped from that (much discussed in the last few days) Wednesday-morning thrill to an obligation for work purposes to keep an eye on what they were covering.

    What I came to appreciate in retrospect about the mid-’80s version was it wanted to tell us about The Cramps and Al Green, The Replacements and Alan Bleasdale, and also James Blood Ulmer and Yellowman and King Sunny Adé and the miner’s strike, even if something deeply mediocre like Hipsway was on the cover. It was a broad church, if not a happy one, as Lord Sukrat and others have related. That demand to pick sides was unhelpful if, like me, you were excited about both The Shop Assistants and Roxanne Shanté. It could be great, and it could be terrible.

    Still, I’m inclined on the whole to blame the readers rather than the staff or even IPC for the narrowing of the focus to music and a fairly limited range of music that happened from around ’88 onwards. It didn’t help that while Smash Hits was genuinely funny, I found the Collins & Maconie & chums shtick really wearing*.

    I was never exclusively an NME reader – I also read Sounds, Melody Maker (esp ’87-89**), Record Mirror occasionally, Spin (I really liked Spin, even though import copies were pricey), The Face and assorted others.

    What does strike me as strange, considering how obsessed I was with the music press, is that I don’t remember having favourite writers from any of the inkies– either in terms of someone whose opinion was reliably like mine or as a stylist. Maybe I’ve just blanked whoever it was out due to retrospective embarrassment.

    (I always knew who my least favourite writer was, though: Paolo Hewitt, who later delighted me by switching from a dogmatic anti-guitar band stance in the mid-’80s to lauding terrible turgid rock music in the mid-’90s and even ‘writing’ a book about Creation Records – whichever side of the barricades he was on, he was still wrong.)

    *(Sorry Andrew, if by any chance you stumble across this).
    **As Tom says, there are a fair few people who claim that MM was the better paper at this point. I don’t think that’s true, but it gave the sense of having a clearer sense of purpose for a bit, even though that has also been greatly exaggerated in retrospect – its core business was goth with a sideline in newly chart-friendly ex-indie with the Reynolds/Stubbs/Oldfield stuff an indulged subsidiary.

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